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Take a Walk on the Wild Side: Mammal Tracking with Sophie Mazowita

There’s a murder scene before our eyes: red and gray feathers, sheared and scattered across the ground. Paw prints everywhere, from raccoon and domestic cat and red fox. The fox’s tracks are the most numerous and the most worn into the snow, revealing it as the culprit that lingered to ingest its meal, pushing its feet into the snowpack as it tore feathers out with its teeth. We pause to take in the scene, and I think of the bird- a robin, perhaps?- and this final sign that it left behind: the “last track” of its life.

We are near the Intervale Sea Caves, in a strip of urban wildland known (to a few) as Arthur Park. The entry to this City-owned woodland is marked by a sign reading “Donohue Sea Caves,” visible to motorists traveling up North Ave.  After parking near Burlington High School, we passed this sign and followed a stream of ice skaters making their way to the frozen pond that lies between North Ave and Route 127. Rather than head down to the ice, however, we veered off the path early and slid down the steep slope to where a strip of forest meets the edge of the marsh below.

Immediately we were surrounded by animal tracks in the fresh February snow. We followed a well-worn trail used primarily by raccoon, which challenged us to fit through raccoon-sized gaps under logs, traverse thin ice that might only bear a raccoon’s weight, and scramble over a tangle of downed trees with raccoon-like agility. The discovery of the bird kill site, plus numerous fox and opossum trails along the way, is our reward.

Arthur Park is one of several areas that is being studied by the Burlington Mammal Tracking Project, a BPRW volunteer-led initiative that seeks to map where wildlife occurs within the City and how it moves between core habitat areas. It follows from an earlier study, in 2000, that found track and sign from all of Vermont’s large mammal species- from bobcats to beavers, moose to mink- right within City boundaries. Since December 2016, volunteers have been contributing photos of animal tracks and sign, plus reports of direct sightings of wildlife, to a map on iNaturalist.org. This online platform and its smartphone app allow anyone to contribute sightings which are then verified by the online community of wildlife trackers and naturalists- a great enhancement over the paper reporting forms used 17 years ago.

There is a good baseline understanding of what species occur in which large parks and open spaces, like Centennial Woods or Rock Point, but knowledge of how these animals might move between the larger green spaces is limited. What happens when it’s time for a red fox to leave its natal den in the Intervale and establish a territory of its own? Or how would a bobcat moving from Shelburne to Colchester make its way through town? A single bobcat track found at the edge of the Winooski River, north of Centennial Woods, offers a clue. Over time, additional observations- as well as photos from motion-triggered wildlife cameras deployed across town- could illuminate more pieces of this story.

Project Coordinator Sophie Mazowita hopes the initiative will eventually inform the management of open space, giving wildlife “a seat at the table” when the City is making decisions or steering initiatives that could affect public or private land use: “The City’s Open Space Protection Plan includes the goal of protecting and enhancing wildlife corridors, yet we have limited information about where those corridors are and what are the barriers to animal movement. A corridor could be a large strip of woods, like the forested shoreline of the Winooski River from the Winooski Bridge to the Intervale, or it could be a narrow hedgerow in your backyard; either one could be a link providing access to seasonal food sources, den sites, and mating partners, leading to healthy and resilient wildlife populations.” In some cases, we are aware of barriers like the extensive fencing along Route 127, the bike path, and the railroad, yet nothing has been done to make these fences more permeable to wildlife. “Simply leaving a 7 or 8-inch gap below a fence would allow most animals to pass under it, or installing vertical slat fencing with 7-inch gaps between the slats.”

 

The project focuses on larger mammals as “umbrella species”; protecting habitat for these large-wide ranging mammals also ensures habitat for the myriad smaller organisms- whether fungi, amphibians or insects- that populate Burlington’s natural communities.

Most ubiquitous of the Burlington project’s focal species is the red fox, that same species we found feasting on a bird at Arthur Park. Sophie returned the following week and found a circular impression in the snow where a red fox had bedded down on the open ground at the edge of the cattail and Phragmites marsh. She followed its tracks back up the slope to North Ave, where it galloped across, into the south end of Lakeview Cemetery. At the north end of the cemetery, a fox trail exited and crossed back into Arthur Park, seeming to complete the circuit through the open space on either side of the busy road.

The fox probably crossed under cover of darkness, with no one around to witness it, but luckily its travels were fully recorded in the fresh powder. With any luck, we’ll see a little more snow before the winter tracking season is up… which is when the mud and sand tracking season begins.

Have you seen any mammal track or sign? Submit observations or check out the latest sightings on iNaturalist. The project is particularly interested in large species including bobcat, fisher, coyote, deer, moose, black bear, red fox, gray fox, otter, beaver, and mink.

 

Eager to learn how to interpret animal trackers or spend some time with fellow trackers? The Burlington Tracking Club meets monthly, with the next gathering set for Sunday, March 12.

 

Written by: Sophie Mazowita & Garrett Chisholm